It Really is a Crusade

Days after the 9-11 attacks, George W. Bush informed Americans, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.” As a Yale history major, he ought to have known what the medieval Crusades were all about: Christians against Muslims, mostly for control of Palestine, fought with all the viciousness and duplicity reflected in the recent film “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The explosive term was guaranteed to incite Muslim ire and alarm, and protests from everywhere (including the State Department, I’d imagine) caused Bush to drop it from his fevered rhetoric. But yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a Crusade, an anti-Muslim project conducted from a Judeo-Christian command center of a particularly unholy type. No matter how much administration officials profess their respect for Islam, denying any religious character to the war, and however they express wide-eyed amazement that Muslims might misunderstand the “war on terrorism” as an anti-Muslim war, it really is a crusading “holy war”—for the following reasons.

After 9-11 President Bush found an opportunity to attack Iraq, which as the books by Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill attest, he had hoped and planned to do in any event. There was no connection between 9-11 and Iraq, and no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (although some may still have faith that such will be found). But the al-Qaeda operatives, most Iraqis, and most of the people in the “Greater Middle East”—that vast oil-rich strategic pivot of geopolitics—are Muslims. Up to 80% of Americans are Christians, and Bush’s political base is the fundamentalist Christian right. Many Christian fundamentalists believe that Islam is an enemy, a false faith. This belief can be exploited politically.

In defiance of reason, the Bush administration insisted that an attack on weak, sanctions-bled Iraq would help prevent hate-filled Muslim minds in Baghdad from executing another 9-11 against America, whose overwhelmingly Christian people Bush said he knew were “good people.” How he pandered to the self-righteousness of those who believe they’re “saved”! Good versus evil. “You are either with us or against us,” he warned a startled world in November 2001. Bush echoed the words of Christ in Matthew 12:30: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Thus did the preacher-man gather his own flock, which loudly bayed “amen” to his planned Crusade.

This is a faith-based war, with all the irrationality of the medieval Crusades, or the wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation. The fundamentalists are big on the Reformation of course, but downright hostile to the Enlightenment that succeeded it. Not just hostile to Diderot and Voltaire and Kant but to Thomas Jefferson who heretically declared, “Question even the existence of God, for if there be one, He will more likely pay homage to Reason than to blind faith.” Hostile too to the norms of international relations prevailing in recent centuries. One can look at the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) as the midpoint between the wars of religion launched by the Reformation, and the dawn of reason in the Enlightenment. That treaty posited the sovereign state as the basic unit in world politics and promoted non-intervention in order to maintain peace. All very rational. But the Christian right, some of whose members want to chuck the constitution and impose their holy “dominion” over your life, are happy to chuck hundreds of years of international law to irrationally assault the world. All in the name of God! Their hero George Bush specifically said of his illegal invasion in 2003, “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein], and I smote him.”

So yes, this is a Crusade, led by Bush, God’s chosen one, against al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi resistance—and so many others who have little in common except for the fact that they emerge from primarily Muslim societies. Syria and Iran are both targeted for “regime change.” So was the Palestinian Authority, led by the late Yassir Arafat, who was obliged to appoint a U.S.-approved prime minister in order to maintain diplomatic contact with Washington and Sharon. (It was to that prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, that Bush confided his divine mission to “smite” his enemies.) It’s a Crusade against Hizbollah, the most popular Muslim political party in Lebanon. A war on Hamas, which enjoys wide support among Palestinian Muslims.

It’s a Crusade that brilliantly exploits ethnic and religious prejudices in the U.S. It mixes the holier-than-thou triumphalism of the End Times believers with both Jewish and Christian Zionist dreams of a Middle East transformed by U.S. power. The “for us or against us” formulation borrowing from New Testament language pits the Judeo-Christian “us” against everybody else (including Cuba, North Korea, and leftist movements) but particularly at present against the Muslim world. Those vague categories “terrorism” and the religious-sounding “evil” were deftly used to morph bid Laden into Saddam; they may be used to conflate these with the Iranian mullahs. The war on all the evil in the cosmos begins with Muslim targets but at a certain point the religious attack can be diverted back to Godless communism too.

For the time being anyway the focus is on Islam, and on aggressively promoting—demanding, really—political change in the “Greater Middle East.” Supposedly this is to protect America. “We are going to build a different kind of Middle East,” Condoleezza Rice told U.S. troops last March, “a different kind of broader Middle East that is going to be stable and democratic and where our children will one day not have to be worried about the kind of ideologies of hatred that led those people to fly those planes into those buildings on Sept. 11.” What is it about the Middle East that breeds the “ideologies of hatred”—those identified as such by the administration including secular Baathism, al-Qaeda terrorism, and Iran’s political Shiism? The only thing linking these disparate ideologies aside from a hostility to U.S. policies is their Muslim component. The subtext here is that the Muslim world, as is, is unsuitable. A danger to our kids. So we need a Crusade for the children.

Throughout the world, not merely the Muslim world, the reputation of the U.S. plummets. But especially in the Muslim countries, with 20% of the world’s population. The hateful behavior of the U.S. towards Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo inevitably provokes hatred among Muslims with worldviews as diverse as you will find among Christians. One needn’t embrace an “ideology of hatred” to oppose the unprovoked attack on a sovereign state, the deliberate public humiliation of its toppled leader, the Abu Ghraib tortures and humiliations. Or to respond with indignation to the arrogance and hypocrisy of it all. The occupier of Iraq demands Syria end its occupation of Lebanon or face the consequences. The power that wants to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty to produce tactical nukes tells Iran it’s not allowed to enrich uranium, which that Treaty allows it to do. It is as though the Bush administration wants to be hated. It can then turn to the American people and say: “See, those people hate us! So we have to change their governments and institutions and education systems and customs, giving them our system, to end their hate and protect ourselves from them!”

The Crusades we read of in the history books were all about Palestine, about Jerusalem. Christians (the Byzantine Empire) had lost control of the region to the Muslim Arabs in 638, but Christians had generally been tolerated under the caliphates. Indeed the Patriarch Sophronios, who surrendered the city to the Arab commander Omar, had been given written assurances that Christians would retain control of Christian holy sites and practice their faith without hindrance. Agreements with Frankish kings or Byzantine emperors had facilitated the maintenance of Christian holy places in the city and the pilgrimages of European Christians. There was a brief period of Christian persecution from 1009, but so long as local Muslim authorities permitted Christian pilgrimages, relations between Christendom and Islam were businesslike and cordial. This changed when the Seljuk Turks conquered the Arabs, taking Jerusalem in 1070, and then gobbled away at the Byzantine Empire, taking Antioch and most of Asia Minor. Christian Byzantium, while at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, appealed to the Roman Pope to aid itself and all Christendom by beating back the Turkish tide.

Pope Urban II accommodated the Byzantines by calling for a holy war. At the Council of Clermont in 1095 he called upon European Christian “men of all ranks, knights as well as foot soldiers, rich as well as poor, to hasten to exterminate this vile race from the lands of your brethren.” This vile race! He referred here to the recently Islamicized Turks. “Christ commands it!” he added. So began a European campaign to reclaim for Christendom a region lost to Islamic rule four and a half centuries earlier.

But as in the current Crusade, the objective became very blurred early on. Why were Jews in the Danube valley targeted for slaughter? They had nothing to do with the Turks. Why the bloody Crusader fighting with Slavonians in 1097? The Crusaders took Jerusalem in July 1099, butchering all its inhabitants regardless of age or sex. Why? Why the siege of (Christian) Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204? The troops with the cross of Jesus emblazoned on their tunics committed horrific atrocities, not just against Muslims but against humanity in general. Perhaps it is in the nature of a Crusade to widen over time, to find new enemies, to tap the potential of religious fanaticism and viciousness.

There were seven Crusades between 1096 and 1254. The Crusaders lost, the Muslims won, in the end graciously according Christians the right to trade and to visit as pilgrims while Christian Europe went about its religious inquisitions and pogroms. The current Crusade of Bush tells Muslims they can’t go about their own business—because Christ through Bush commands that they change so as not to frighten American children. While the U.S. military disdains to count civilian dead in Afghanistan or Iraq, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, a deputy Undersecretary of Defense says, “We’re a Christian nation” and “the enemy is a guy called Satan.” Bush’s religious mentor Franklin Graham calls Islam a “wicked, evil religion.” The Graham father and son are well known for their televangelizing extravaganzas, which they call—what else?—“crusades.” Born-again boys from believing communities march off to the Muslim world to respond to 9-11, as their Christian predecessors (peasants, children, knights) set forth from Europe a century ago, waywardly, many to their doom. Onward, Christian soldiers, “with the cross of Jesus going on before”

But there are of course Christians who reject the crusading mentality, now and a millennium ago. Why did Saladin, who did battle with Richard Lionheart in the late twelfth century, become so celebrated in medieval European romances? The Kurdish Muslim warrior (featured prominently in “The Kingdom of Heaven”) impressed all with his rationality and magnanimity. This in the twelfth century, when the Islamic world was far more enlightened, inclusive and tolerant than Christendom. The present Islamic world may not afford an attractive alternative paradigm to the western one. But neither world is evil incarnate. To grasp that fact and accept that the world isn’t simple is to fatally challenge the Crusader mentality. Let us including the good Christians among us smite that murderous mentality.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: